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Monday, December 28, 2009


Radicals in the United States have lost their bite. It is sad when the nitwits of the extreme right seem wittier than most radicals, including anarchists. The problem is that damn near everyone has become overly sensitive, and among radicals and anarchists, this sensitivity has been made an ideology. So every word and action must be carefully weighed to avoid giving offense and overstepping someone's boundaries.

Well, I have a little something to say about that. If you don't overstep boundaries, if you don't offend, you will never bring down any government or social system. It doesn't matter how many punk records you listen to, how many shirts advertising your anarchist ideas you own, how often you draw a circle A somewhere... Unless you are ready to break through boundaries, to offend and take offense without crying like a baby for your "safe space", unless you are ready to mercilessly mock, insult and blaspheme even the sacred cows of your own so-called comrades, you aren't going to have what it takes to challenge an entire system of authority that rests on the general acceptance of the sacred cows it has set up.

I recently read Best of The Realist, an anthology of articles taken from Paul Krassner's magazine of "free thought, criticism and satire". The Realist (declared on the book's cover to have been "the 60s' most outrageously irreverent magazine") was not an anarchist publication at all. When it began in the late 1950s, it seemed to represent a humorous version of Saul Alinsky-style grassroots populist radicalism. Starting in the early to mid=60s, some counter-cultural concepts got thrown into the mix, with Krassner joining forces with the Yippies for a time in the last half of the 1960s. But throughout most of its history, the magazine offered no-holds-barred satire and humor aimed not just at the institutional structures of this society, but also at the ways our every day activities upheld the most absurd values. Despite the limits of its critique, it had a forceful bite.

Of course, it got started before political correctitude had really kicked in (though this unfortunate ideological tendency was in its embryonic beginnings by the mid-60s). Thus, its editor and those who wrote for it had no hesitation about expressing themselves with a fierce and hilarious straightforwardness, a willingness to call bullshit bullshit, a cunt a cunt, a cock a cock, and not try to hide which of these they found most attractive.

Nowadays, it seems, we've cut off our balls or cut out our ovaries. No one has the guts to really mock with full force, because we're all afraid that we'll offend someone. I don't recall who said it, but one of the better comedians of a few decades ago said: "Comedy is not pretty", and the same surely goes for all forms of humor, sarcasm and satire. There is no place for a gentle hand or tongue in humor; you can save that for sex... depending on what you're into. Humor isn't therapy; it's not supposed to make you comfortable. Laughter farmore often springs from being unnerved for a moment than from joy (and even joyful laughter most likely springs from the fact that the intensity of joy can be unnerving). I mean, what's funny about therapy? (Okay, quite a bit... but none of it intentional) Even Freud's book on jokes (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious) wasn't funny! In fact, my attempt to read it left me unconscious.

It's true enough that we need to do away with the structures and institutions of this society, but we also need to destroy all of the cops, the priests, the moralists, the parents in our own heads. One of our most potent weapons for doing this is a relentless, unbridled, mocking sense of humor that has no respect for anything, and that is what I found throughout most of this anthology. Sadly, toward the end, Krassner and some of his contributors fell for that all too humorless trap of the leftist version of conspiracy theory, but that only made up a tiny portion of the book and can be attributed to the weakness of the analysis behind the magazine. Or, then again, it may be part of that centuries old conspiracy to fool radicals into thinking everything can be understood as conspiracies so that they never make a deeper analysis of the social order and the role played by the daily activity of every single person in reproducing it.

But mostly this book made me realize how anarchists who, at least potentially, have a far deeper critique than Krassner ever had, could use humor to marvelous effect, but only if we break from certain political baggage that has come to cling to our anti-political project. Can we rid ourselves of the stupidity of political correctitude, overcome our fear of offending the idiots among us, move beyond our fetish for boundaries* and rediscover the force of humor and mockery unchained? If not, I'm heading down to the leather bar. If I have to be chained, I want it to be hot and sexy...
* Don't get me wrong. I got nothing against this fetish in the right place--an S&M bondage club, for instance.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


And Other Absurd Nightmares
a review of The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton is an odd book. It is well-written, with humor and, at times, even poetry. Considering when it was written (1907), it even has elements that could be seen as avant-garde. At the same time, it reflects its author, at the very least, his Britishness.

The book is said to portray anarchists in an extremely negative light. This might be true if it actually portrayed anarchists. But, despite appearances, there is only one genuinely anarchist character in the book. While it is true that his anarchism is somewhat of a caricature, toward the end of the book, when he presents his accusation against Sunday (the "president" of the "Central Anarchist Council"), it is fairly well-argued. But this character plays a minor role in the book, appearing only at the beginning and end. Every other anarchist in the book, spouting rhetoric of random violence and destruction, turns out, in fact, to be a cop working on a special anti-anarchist force. Unknown to each other, these six cops make up the "Central Anarchist Council" under the leadership of Sunday.

Sunday is himself an ambiguous character. This ambiguity has led some to interpret the book theologically and identify Sunday with God. This is not mere whimsy on the part of these interpreters. Chesterton was a christian, and toward the end of the book he brings in some explicitly biblical imagery. But the edition of the book I read follows the story with an excerpt from an article Chesterton wrote, in which he states explicitly that this was not his meaning, that he was not attempting to "describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was". He emphasizes that he had subtitled the book "A Nightmare". And it is as such that it should be read. Nonetheless, Chesterton was an "orthodox" christian (as he liked to put it), and noting his use of biblical imagery toward the end of the book, I am convinced that he was making some sort of commentary about a particular view of god, perhaps the view held within what he called "the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt..." He did, wrongly, identify anarchists with these pessimists, when certain reactionaries of the time may have been closer to those views.

In any case, flinging away all the theological garb from Sunday, throughout most of the book, but especially when the six cops who were on the "Central Anarchist Council" confront him and he decides to give them a run for their money, this more than merely human character proves to be an exuberant, prankish lover of life and the absurd, a sort of dadaist joker. In fact, perhaps the greatest failing of the book is the pompous ending with its biblical imagery. It didn't quite ring true after the dadaist exploits of the Sunday of the chase, evading the cops, while sending them mocking, absurd messages. This Sunday is a portrayal of an anarchist prankster to whom I could relate. How does he become the pompous apologists for order at the end of the book? Perhaps that is something only a christian could understand.